Monday, August 02, 2010

A Chapter In My Life

I've just come back from Camp Bestival where I told the following tale as part of the early morning open mic slot in the Literary Tent. I wasn't going to post it on here - since about half of it is "old" - but on my way out of the festival, someone - a stranger - stopped me and congratulated me on my performance from earlier in the day. Which was nice...


My favourite book is The Catcher In The Rye.

A story probably needs a better first line than this. A chapter can just about get away with it. As long as it's not the first chapter. But a story probably does need a better first line, even if it's only "Once upon a time..."

So yeah, suffice to say that already, even now, even at this comparatively foetal stage in the proceedings, even when it might look like I have absolutely no idea where either I or this tale is going, that I am, effectively, beating around a bush which definitely hadn't been introduced, you were unaware existed, and therefore can't possibly feel any empathy for, I've already spent more time dwelling on this line than is either literally necessary or healthy. So you'll have to forgive the route the rest of this chapter takes.

And that is absolutely not a request, not that it's an order. I'm not rude. It's just the truth.

If I'm honest - and on this occasion I am being honest - I'm not even comfortable calling it a chapter. Calling it a chapter makes it seem somehow more insignificant or, at the very least, less significant. Like it's only a passing moment, like there was a time before it and there will be a time after it. And although I know there was, and although I know there almost certainly will be, that doesn't detract from the fact that the whole of my life, or at least the last three to thirty-five years, have, undeniably, effectively, and ultimately been building up to this point: this sentence: these words: this word, and all I'm asking you to do, if you wouldn't mind, is to cut me some collective slack. So with your permission I'm not going to call it a chapter, I'm going to call it a story. And since I've already mentioned the bush, now I want to tell you about the river and the flying crow.

Because you'll be overjoyed to hear that whilst it would no doubt be easier if this story was a flying crow, this story is actually a river.

In an ideal world all stories would be flying crows - a straight line in any direction it might choose to travel. That's how a river would flow in the same world. The reality is that worlds, as we all know, are rarely ideal, and water, as we all also know, finds the easiest route, and stories, as we also all know too, do something broadly similar. So as much as you or I would love this story to be a flying crow, it's not. It's a river. And whilst it could have started straight or might straighten up at certain points, it's largely a series of meanders with the occasional oxbow lake of irrelevance. This is why it will only sometimes appear to make sense.

I'm of the opinion that the best stories are better read out than read. Only a good book can make me think the opposite. I'm also of the opinion that it's better to be too cold rather than too hot. I remember when it was dead hot. Horrible sticky heat. Hot as in over twenty degrees. And I still miss the centigrade scale.

People annoy me.

I'm a Winter person. I like wearing lots of clothes. If wearing too many layers of clothes was a hanging offence then I'd be dead now. I'd have been hanged years ago. I'd have been dead for years. Hung.

And so you know. This story is largely about the weather. And the fact that there's nothing wrong with starting or finishing a sentence with the word and.

People annoy me when they complain that it's too cold. And I'm not talking about your pensioner who can't afford to put the heating on. In general they don't anyway. They're up to their armpits in shawls and blankets, up to their heads in balaclavas. They haven't got time to be bitter about the bitter weather. They're using their complaint gland to complain about the cost of heating. The people who complain about it being too cold can generally afford another jumper. They generally own gloves. They are generally the same people who complain when the weather's too hot. The weather isn't given a chance. It can't win.

I like extremes of temperature. When you're cold you can always wear more clothes, if you're hot and naked you have problems. Or at least, you know, you might have problems. Some of the time. It depends on other stuff.

I don't mind when it's hot. I still get accused of wearing too many layers of clothes, luckily I can't be formally charged. When it's hot there are hosepipe bans. When it's hot for more than two days it becomes a heatwave. Look it up if you don't believe me. Anyway, it had been dead hot recently and I was on the bus when it started. I don't mind the rain but when it's quite heavy you need a hat or an umbrella.

I'd bought a coat, before the hot spell.

I had needed a coat.

I'd looked for one for quite a while but, try as I might, I couldn't find one which fitted my brief.

It had to be:

1. Cheap
2. Warm
3. Any colour - even brown and
4. Waterproof

I looked everywhere, even in shops which didn't sell coats, all to no avail. I eventually found one which suited me down to the tops of my thighs. I thought twice about buying it straight away because of the label I found stuck to the inside pocket. Instead of not buying the coat I just ripped the label off, and everything was okay. Can you guess what the label said? It said, "NOT TO BE WORN IN THE RAIN".

Anyway, back on the bus, I was wearing my coat at the time, after all, it's never too hot for a coat, but the hood on it doesn't reach my head properly and if I have to put it up my shoulders somehow disappear. And I'm not a big fan of hats. The problem with hats is I don't have the neck for them. Ownership of a head is not actually a prerequisite for carrying off a hat - not in an aesthetic sense at least. You have to have the neck for hats. So I got off the bus and went to buy an umbrella. The thing was I only had a fiver on me and decent ones cost about twice as much. Or at least if anyone asked me how much a decent umbrella costs I'd tell them about a tenner. Not that anyone ever has, or probably ever will, but I think it's just as well to be prepared. I went straight into Debenhams, looking like the Atlantic, found an umbrella that fell within my budget, paid for it, and left.

It was only when I got outside that I realised my mistake. It was a girls one. I had paid five pounds for what was, in effect, a crap parasol. My walk to work only heightened my angst. There were umbrella sales going on everywhere. Decent ones. For less than a tenner. Even in Halfords. I might as well have held a five pound note over my head for all the use my new umbrella was. To be honest it was more of a psychological crutch. In fact it probably would have made a better crutch than an umbrella because the first gust of wind that came my way turned the umbrella inside out and ripped it apart. My umbrella left as a canvasless umbrella corpse. Lying in a bin. Spokes akimbo.

Incidentally, I saw a rainbow the other day and went looking for the crock of gold. When I found them they were complaining about the cost of heating.

So anyway, once upon a time my favourite book was "The Catcher In The Rye", and it still is. I'm loath to get involved discussions about favourites. Favourite book, favourite song, favourite colour, favourite envelope, favourite dental procedure, favourite celebrity whose initials run consecutively in the alphabet, favourite son or favourite daughter - all seemingly random favourites, you might think - still I could give you an answer for them all. It's likely that it's more that I'm not a fan of the word favourite than the idea of choosing a favourite. The irony never escapes me. My favourite book is just a book that I've yet to tire of reading. I'm sure it's a lot of people's favourite book. It's a good book. In fact a google search of the exact phrase, "My favourite book is The Catcher In The Rye" reveals 21,700 matches. In nought point one six seconds. So I know I'm not alone.

And I also know I'm not alone because I have family. A family which, until recently, didn't seem able to produce boys. Since my Dad was born, my family had produced only one boy. Me. Two sisters with three daughters each, and two daughters of my own - all within the last ten years. Plenty of nieces to love to pieces, and daughters to love like I oughta, but the traditionalist in me always wanted a son. I've pretty much always clung to the hackneyed pretension of perpetuating not only my genetic future, but also my surname. Maybe moreso since my Dad died. Don't ask me why, I'm aware how irrational the premise is. And I'm normally quite savvy. Seriously. The statistician in me thought that it might happen one day - and I was quite prepared to keep trying - so long as my partner wanted the same statistician in her.

Eventually dawn broke on that day. And all eleven and a half pounds of that bouncing baby boy made me feel simultaneously shocked, amazed, and unswervingly happy. And for every hour of every waking moment since, every ounce of that child has made me feel even happier and humbled and privileged. And whilst it goes against my natural instincts to publicly declare certain information, if there were ever a moment where I might have neglected to thank my wife for that moment and every moment since, then I do so now.

I'm grateful for this opportunity, and you should be grateful for the opportunity to say whatever you want to say and whatever you have to say. You should hate being edited or censored. You should abhor being banned or silenced. You can't always be responsible for how people react to what you say, and you can't always be held responsible. You put your thoughts out there. They're who you are, your very essence. And once those words are out there, for everyone to read, those words are there to be interpreted however anyone sees fit.

You don't need to back down from them if you know you're right.

You don't have to compromise. There's no such thing as compromise, someone has to give in.

Because if you can't defend your words then you have absolutely nothing worth saying.

And none of this is particularly new, or at least I don't think it is. And none of what you'll read or hear is especially radical or controversial. It's just stuff that has happened. But I don't want to waffle on about it too much. As someone once said, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do you start missing everybody."

And if you think about that, it's true.

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